Interview with Pablo Chin

On November 29th, Fonema Consort presents Nina Dante's EVER A NEW CYCLE, a DCASE-supported concert of new song cycles by Pablo ChinJonathon Kirk, and Shawn Jaeger. In a 3-part interview series, Dante dives deep into the composers' approach to the genre and their artistic vision. Part I: Pablo Chin and Mythologies.

Nina Dante : We have worked together for a long time, and your music has meant very much to me: it was your Solo es real la niebla in 2011 that exploded my love of performing new music. What a thrilling experience to train my voice to do things it didn't know it was capable of, to expand my vision of beauty and music, and to realize art that required my full creative and mental force! I am curious what it is like from a composer's perspective to work with a performer over such a long period of time. To what extent does your knowledge of my instrument and interests have an effect on what you choose to write? How does this collaboration manifest in Mythologies?

Pablo Chin : First of all, there is no greater joy for me to know that what I do, what I believe in and what has transformed my understanding of life and my life itself has the power to transform other people’s life for better (hopefully not for worse!). As much as I tremendously enjoy working with “specialists” in new music to whom you do not have to explain what a certain notation means or how to perform certain “extended technique,” working with musicians who have never performed a “jet whistle” or who have never sung in vocal fry, or played a multiphonic, and overall who did not know how to fit these new sounds within a coherent discourse or experiential format, seeing them taking the challenge and feeling rewarded afterwards; that for me gives lots of meaning to composing music that at times can raise doubts about how it contributes to the world.

Returning to your question, it is difficult to express how your voice and our relatively long-term collaboration have changed the course of my compositional language. It inevitably makes me think of Berio-Berberian. After so many works tailored to your voice, capabilities and expressive urges, Mythologies posed a very difficult challenge: what else is there to discover about your voice?! More than trying to challenge you this time, I am trying to reflect on our previous collaboration through this piece. So it borrows materials from previous works for you and set them in a different context and different formal designs.

World premiere of Chin's "(in)armonia: motetes", with Voix de Stras'

ND : As you know, this concert celebrates the song cycle, and is designed as a platform to welcome in some new incarnations of the genre. To what extent did the concept of the traditional song cycle shape your piece? How does it compare to our traditional conception of what a song cycle is?

PC : The most concrete way in which the song cycle found its way into Mythologies is that the text is set in a more transparent way in comparison to previous works where words are taken apart into phonemes, or in which made-up language is used (Como la leyenda de Tlön for which you invented the language!). So far two pieces from a cycle of four pieces were completed, so in that sense, by existing as a unity these pieces relate to the song cycle. The text of Mythologies consists of extracts from the dialogues of the three witches of Shakespeare's Macbeth. The witches speak in verse, so in this way the piece is consistent with traditional song cycles in terms of their use of poetic texts; but different in that each piece is meant to deliver a conversation between the three witches, rather than using a poetic source with a single narrator/point of view.

Recording Chin's "Boschiana" (January 2014)

ND : Quite a number of your pieces deal with legends/myths (Como la leyenda de IxquiqComo la leyenda de TlönComo la leyenda de la gran muralla china), and if not a legend, they are usually based on clear and archetypal stories (Music for the Hedgehog in the FogEchoes of the SteppenwolfRetrato del Gran Pájaro Feo). This new cycle Mythologies is among them, drawing on texts from the witches of Shakespeare's Macbeth. I would be curious to know what - in a post-serial, post-narrative musical environment of increasing complexity (also characteristic of your style)- initially drew you to using stories as inspiration for your work? How do you bring out the theatricality and narrative of these stories in your music?

PC : In Costa Rica I grew up listening to legends and now I understand legends are forms to create cultural bonds. However, for me these pieces you mention depart from concrete, simple concepts after which a more complex, sophisticated language can be applied without loosing touch with a more graspable foundation. The closer I come to the theatrical (especially since our collaboration and of course Fonema Consort) the more I find in these pieces fertile ground to let drama emerge. The stories I choose tell me more about how could I build a piece (they suggest approaches to form and structure) than about to represent something (a feeling, ideal, story). I must confess sometimes I envy writers (quite the opposite of for example Alejo Carpentier, one of my favorite writers, who really wanted to be a composer...and who actually left great sources of musicological work in his native Cuba).

Dante gives the world premiere of Chin's "7 Studies on Chapter 34"

ND : Mythologies is part of your first chamber opera (in)armonia (excerpt here), which you have been writing for two years. We are gearing up to premiere a larger new section of the opera at the Ear Taxi festival in October 2016. Can you describe the opera itself, and how this trio fits into the larger work? I am guessing that no one dies of tuberculosis...

PC : The opera is slowly taking shape and finding its own way to develop as an organic creature (I really like to think of musical works as living creatures to whom we (composers) must listen to in order to know what they want to be!). What I can say now is that the figure of Julio Cortázar is central to it, since most of the texts used in the sections already composed comes from Rayuela (Hopscotch), even when the texts are citations in the novel from other writers. Now I think that Cortázar represents the general figure of the artistic creator in this opera (so he may be a mirror of my own persona), and the witches in these songs I relate to the figure of muses in Greek mythology; or of hunting voices such as sirens, which I use in other sections of the opera.

Oh, and nobody dies of tuberculosis...I am thinking of crucifixion since I’m turning 33, hmm.